Mainly owing to this common denominator, last week a delegation of two mayors from the eastern province of Erzurum, the local Youth and Sports Director of Artvin, and two officials from the ministries of tourism and culture and forestry flew to Switzerland to investigate possible ways of improving how they organize wrestling events in their own regions, as part of an EU-backed sustainable development project. They aimed to talk to the organizers who recently held a world class "Schwingen" -- or Swiss wrestling -- festival with minimal damage to the environment and significant returns for their own region.
In August, Frauenfeld -- the capital of the Swiss canton of Thurgau -- held a traditional Swiss wrestling festival in which 200,000 festival-goers participated. The event was top-notch and made the city extremely proud, according to Urs Schneider, president of the organizing committee.
Schneider provided the Turkish delegation with detailed information about the preparation of the event. The Turkish delegation included the mayor of Erzurum's largest district, Oltu Mayor İbrahim Ziyrek, and Uzundere Mayor Halis Özsoy -- in whose surrounding region a 2 million euro sustainable conservation project is under way.
Most of the funding for this project -- officially titled the Kaçkar Mountains Sustainable Forest Use and Conservation Project -- comes from the EU. The leading project partner, the Turkish Foundation for Reforestation, Protection of Natural Habitats and Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA), is covering the remaining 20 percent. Various other civil society groups as well as the Middle East Technical University (METU), are among the project's partners. The project seeks to conserve the Kaçkar Mountain range on the Black Sea coast in eastern Turkey.
The area is not only important for its spectacular scenery, but it has also been listed as a world priority conservation site by TEMA and METU and is part of the Caucasus' wider forest region which is classified by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as a top 200 priority. It is home to many endemic species and the region's old forests support a wide range of wildlife, including bears, wild goats, chamois, lynx, wolves and even leopards.
But where does wrestling come in? The region, like Frauenfeld, has its own unique traditional wrestling. TEMA representative Mustafa Yıkılmaz, who is also the project manager responsible for the tourism leg of the region's sustainable development effort, said the project aimed to develop tourism in the region by creating tourist attractions that emphasized the culture and traditions of the region.
He added that other attractions for nature lovers, such as improving trekking or rafting organizations and organizing activities for wildlife enthusiasts and observers, would be part of the development effort.
Although Turkey is better known internationally for the Kırkpınar Wrestling Festival, usually accepted as the oldest wrestling event in the world with the tradition dating back 650 years, the project's main site, the Yusufeli district of Artvin, has long been organizing wrestling festivals known as Karakucak.
This Karakucak form of wrestling doesn't involve wrestlers bodies being oiled, unlike Kırkpınar, and is practiced in various regions of the country. The project hopes to improve how events for this ancient sport are organized in Yusufeli and nearby areas. Erzurum's Oltu and Uzundere districts, which are part of a local government union along with Yusufeli and 22 other municipalities, all strive for the same goal and are of vital importance to the project – as Yıkılmaz pointed out. This is why those in charge of the tourism and culture legs of the project felt the need to consult the Swiss, arguably the best event organizers in the world.
And, the Swiss happen to have Schwingen, where the wrestlers compete in sawdust-strewn wrestling rings. The organizing committee built a 36,000-square-meter arena that could seat 47,500 people with the help of Swiss Army soldiers and other volunteers in just seven weeks, with close to zero environmental impact. The organizers who met with the Turkish delegation last week explained in detail how they achieved such a stunning feat: serious Swiss professionalism, incredible sponsors, an endless supply of devoted volunteers and locals willing to work for the love of the sport, amazing support from all state agencies, superb organizing and assignment delegation skills, a sizable budget that mostly relied on sponsorship and an unwavering sense of duty to preserve and honor the tradition.
"We have learned a lot and we will do our best to apply these as guiding principles in our regional events," said Ziyrek, following the meeting with the Swiss organizers and Werner Dickenmann from the Frauenfeld City Council.
Similarly, Özsoy said: "This meeting has been extremely helpful and has given us a lot of new and useful ideas to improve similar organizations in our region."
He said the need to increase the effort to publicize and market the wrestling festivals had become more evident in light of the Swiss experience.